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Is the SEC West Really College Football’s Stongest Division? 1

Posted on September 17, 2015 by Jim Hurley
Gus Malzahn and the Auburn Tigers barely escaped an upset bid by Jacksonville State.

Gus Malzahn and the Auburn Tigers barely escaped an upset bid by Jacksonville State.

The SEC West is college football’s showcase division and it’s in the Saturday spotlight with two big games for us to watch. It starts in mid-afternoon with Auburn-LSU (3:30 PM ET, CBS) and then concludes with Ole Miss-Alabama in prime time (9:15 PM ET, ESPN). Here are some early thoughts about these four teams from a handicapping perspective, pertaining to both Saturday specifically and the long-term…

AUBURN: The scare the Tigers got against Jacksonville State on Saturday, needing overtime to pull out a 27-20 win as (-39) favorite has cost Auburn a lot of stock nationally. In fact, the Tigers have been overpriced lately anyway. What do I mean by lately? Like ever since they finished off the 2013 national championship game, a cover against Florida State.

Last season, Auburn was priced like a national championship contender and couldn’t meet that bar. The Tigers were 4-8 against the number and now they’ve started 0-2 ATS this season, even while winning both games outright.

I’m willing to give Gus Malzahn’s team a pass for the Jacksonville State near-disaster. It was right in between the season opener against Louisville in the Georgia Dome and the LSU game on Saturday, the proverbial “sandwich” spot. My concerns lie with what happened in the Louisville game itself.

Auburn jumped out to a 24-0 lead and then had to hold off a late Cardinal charge to hold on 31-24. Louisville is an extremely young team and the Tigers failed to cover the (-10) line. They had serious problems defending Louisville’s versatile quarterback Lamar Jackson, who ran for 106 yards. Auburn’s own quarterback, Jeremy Johnson, threw three interceptions.

That’s not a formula for winning games against SEC opponents that have quarterbacks who can move. However, before turning this into a pile-on-Auburn segment, we also have to point out the positives. Peyton Barber is running the football effectively, going for 115 yards in the Louisville game and again getting 100-plus as one of the few bright spots against Jacksonville State.

Auburn also played good pass defense against Louisville. Jackson was not able to get anything going in the air. That might not project out to very much against some SEC West opponents, but is relevant against LSU, which has significant problems throwing the ball that we’re about to touch on. Read the rest of this entry →

Pieces in Place for Dallas Cowboys to Contend for Super Bowl 50 1

Posted on September 13, 2015 by Chris Kent

The 2015-16 version of the Dallas Cowboys are about to be unveiled. The stage will be set as America’s Team will be showcased in prime time before a national television audience on NBC’s Sunday Night Football tonight. AT&T Stadium will be nothing short of a Texas-sized circus.

An offseason that brought many changes with additions and losses of players through free agency, the draft, trades, and undrafted signings has altered the Dallas team. The team’s offense, defense, and special teams will all feature new faces at key spots and those new faces will largely determine how successful the team is this year. While the Cowboys’ biggest loss is NFL rushing champion DeMarco Murray, who is now wearing green and white in Philadelphia, other players will be missed. Dallas also lost their punt and kickoff return ace in Dwayne Harris who also contributed as a receiver. Offensive tackle Jeremy Parnell who was a valuable reserve for an offensive line that was regarded as the best in the NFL last season is now in Jacksonville. Also lost in free agency were linebacker Bruce Carter and defensive lineman Henry Melton. Both were important contributors to last year’s 12-4 team that won the NFC East and a playoff game, each for the first time in five years. Murray is the biggest loss out of this bunch as his franchise rushing record of 1,845 yards will be missed. Murray also ran for 13 touchdowns and had 57 receptions for 416 yards last season.

Former Oakland Raider Darren McFadden was signed by Dallas to help pick up the slack in the running game left behind by the free agent departure of DeMarco Murray

Former Oakland Raider Darren McFadden was signed by Dallas to help pick up the slack in the running game left behind by the free agent departure of DeMarco Murray.

This year’s running game appears as it will operate by committee unless someone emerges with consistent productivity. Joseph Randle, Darren McFadden, and Lance Dunbar all bring different strengths and styles to the position. Randle, a third-year back out of Oklahoma State, brings speed but lacks experience. He has been serviceable in spot duty over his first two years but needs to fulfill his blocking assignments better. Two legal incidents including a shoplifting charge last year following the Cowboys’ upset win in Seattle have raised questions about his character. McFadden, who finished second in the Heisman Trophy voting in 2006 and 2007, played seven injury-riddled seasons in Oakland where he managed to post only one 1,000-yard rushing season, that being in 2010 when he ran for 1,157 yards on 223 carries. Even then he ran for only seven touchdowns while also missing three games. Dunbar has amassed only 324 yards on 80 carries with no touchdowns in his three-year career. While each of these backs are different, they each can contribute. If McFadden can avoid the toe and chronic foot injuries that have plagued his career, he could be productive for Dallas while Randle will have to stay out of off-the-field trouble and be more consistent. Dunbar’s challenge will be to take advantage of his opportunities and be reliable as a pass catcher and blocker out of the backfield. Waiting in the wings in the backfield is Christine Michael who the Cowboys just signed this past week from Seattle. Michael saw only limited action in his two years as a Seahawk but was on Seattle’s Super Bowl XLVIII championship team. In time, Michael could make a contribution this season and have a chance to show more. If nothing else, he gives the Cowboys some depth at running back.

Read the rest of this entry →

Here’s How They Set Up Halftime Stages So Quickly 1

Posted on September 10, 2015 by Scott Huntington

It’s the Super Bowl. You’re over at your buddy’s house watching the game when the clock finally expires in the second quarter. Up next are some clever commercials before the broadcast returns and you’re greeted with an epic, gargantuan halftime show that seemingly covers the entire football field.


Ten minutes ago, the field was more or less empty. But right now, there’s a huge stage front and center, not to mention all the props, costumed folks, lighting apparatuses and other spectacles.

How the heck do they pull off these kinds of stunts?

It’s not luck: it’s the result of intense, careful planning. After all, there are only a few minutes to get the stage together. The performance itself is 12 minutes long, and then the stage needs to be completely disassembled and carted off the field.

“It’s the most unique of any unique show or experience,” explains Hamish Hamilton, who’s directed the Super Bowl halftime show since 2010. “It’s easily the most intense and by far the most adrenaline-charged because you have a very real set of factors that can only come together at halftime.” Read the rest of this entry →

What Did We Learn About the Big Ten in College Football Week One? 0

Posted on September 10, 2015 by Jim Hurley
Was the performance by Braxton Miller and Ohio State a preview of what to expect throughout 2015?

Was the performance by Braxton Miller and Ohio State a preview of what to expect throughout 2015?

It was towards the tail-end of Ohio State’s 42-24 Labor Day Night win at Virginia Tech that ESPN put up a graphic showing the rest of the Buckeyes’ schedule and the % chance they had of losing each individual game the rest of the season. The worst rating that got was a 77% chance of winning against Michigan State.

There’s been plenty of talk about what that means for the College Football Playoff (e.g., that Ohio State is a lock). What I want to do is look at what this might tell us for handicapping the rest of the Big Ten, particularly with Michigan State being in the spotlight this Saturday night at home against Oregon (8 PM ET, ABC).

Put simply, is the Big Ten still prime “go-against” territory for handicappers in non-conference play? Let’s look at the record. In Week 1, the 13 Big Ten teams not located in Columbus went 7-6 ATS (against the spread). That sounds good enough—in handicapping any number over 52.4% is enough to beat the house advantage and that record clocks in at 53.8%. But digging deeper showed some problems.

Here’s a breakdown of the games in three categories—notable wins, notable losses, and games that we shouldn’t draw too many conclusions from…


  • Northwestern (+10) Stanford 16-6
  • Illinois (-13) Kent 52-3
  • Minnesota (+16) TCU 17-23



  • Penn State (-6) Temple 10-27
  • Nebraska (-5) BYU 28-33—note that even had BYU’s desperation pass to win the game failed, the Cornhuskers would only have won 28-27 and thus failed to cover.
  • Indiana (-20.5) Southern Illinois 48-47
  • Purdue (+7) Marshall 31-41
  • Michigan (+5) Utah 17-24
  • Michigan State (-16.5) Western Michigan 37-24



  • Wisconsin (+12) Alabama 17-35
  • Iowa (-10) Illinois State 31-14
  • Maryland (-21.5) Richmond 50-21
  • Rutgers (-35) Norfolk State 63-13

In these “wait and see” games, the Big Ten went 3-1 against the spread. But the competition faced by Iowa, Maryland and Rutgers is not comparable to what any of these teams would face against even a midlevel opponent from a Power 5 conference. It’s not that there’s anything wrong what the three Big Ten teams did, just that we can’t take anything from it. On the flip side, it’s tough to be too hard on Wisconsin for ending up in Alabama’s way last Saturday night in Dallas. Read the rest of this entry →

College Football Spotlight: Alabama-Wisconsin is Intriguing Opening Weekend Matchup 1

Posted on September 03, 2015 by Jim Hurley
Nick Saban and the Crimson Tide will be opening the 2015 season with a tough neutral site matchup.

Nick Saban and the Crimson Tide will be opening the 2015 season with a tough neutral site matchup.

Alabama begins its push for another berth in the College Football Playoff on Saturday night against Wisconsin in a neutral-site game at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington (8 PM ET, ABC). The question those of us who handicap teams in Las Vegas have to ask ourselves is this—will the Tide offer better value than last season, when they were a money-burner?

To the average fan, it was business as usual in ‘Bama, as Nick Saban’s team went 11-1 in the regular season and then won the SEC Championship Game before ending up in the way of Urban Meyer’s freight train out of Columbus on New Year’s Night in New Orleans in the Playoff semi-final. But for those who wagered on the Tide, it was a different story—5-7-1 against the Vegas number.

That 5-7-1 ATS record (with one game against Western Carolina off the board) was actually better than it appeared. Tide backers got a big break in the road game at LSU. Alabama was a (-6.5) point favorite and only covered because the game went to overtime in a 20-13 final. Another cover, as (-10) favorite against Auburn came by a single point, 55-44. None of the ATS losses were as close.

What this boils down is that Alabama was overrated in 2014. Before Tide fans rise up in rebellion, remember that the term “overrated” is a criticism of the betting market (the collective wisdom of oddsmakers and the wagering public that ultimately creates the posted line) rather than the football team itself. When you look at those lines ‘Bama was facing—giving nearly a touchdown on the road at Baton Rouge at night, giving double digits to Auburn—you can make a pretty good argument that they simply weren’t reasonable.

But that’s what happens with highly successful dynastic programs. The public wants to bet them. Las Vegas keeps pushing the number higher. Eventually it becomes unsustainable. The question here is whether this was a one-time phenomena, or if Alabama is now a prime go-against team?

Expectations are modestly down this year, which Alabama “only” ranked third in the nation, behind Ohio State and TCU. The Crimson Tide are “only” a (-11) favorite against Wisconsin, as opposed to the (-22) they gave up to West Virginia in last year’s neutral site opener—a 33-23 non-cover win.

But there also personnel challenges, most notably a quarterback situation that remains completely up in the air. You can say the same is true at Ohio State, but we don’t yet know if Alabama’s uncertainty will be due to the same embarrassment of riches that exists in Columbus, or if there’s really going to be some problems at the game’s most important position. Read the rest of this entry →

Lawrence McCutcheon: Ram Tough 0

Posted on September 02, 2015 by Dean Hybl
Lawrence McCutcheon

Lawrence McCutcheon

The Sports Then and Now Vintage Athlete of the Month rushed for more than 1,000 yards in a season four times in a five-year stretch, but also threw a touchdown pass in Super Bowl XIV.

A third round draft pick out of Colorado State in 1972, Lawrence McCutcheon played in just three games without a single carry as a rookie. However, beginning in his second season, the fleet runner made five straight Pro Bowl appearances and finished in the top five in the NFL in rushing four times. Read the rest of this entry →

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